An important new ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals highlights when employees can, and cannot, offer arguments in federal employment cases even after administrative bodies have already ruled against that same argument. In this recent case, the court allowed an employee to pursue a Family and Medical Leave Act retaliation case because, even though a state unemployment compensation appeals hearing officer had previously ruled that the employer fired the employee based upon dishonesty, rather than her use of FMLA leave, the hearing officer didn’t rely on competent evidence in making that conclusion. While this case originated in Alabama, the 11th Circuit’s ruling in the matter can affect employers and employees in Georgia.
The employee in the case, Terri Franks, was the manager of Indian Rivers Mental Health Center’s Adult Outpatient Program. Franks’ employment was initially successful, but unfortunately things deteriorated soon after Franks took FMLA leave due to neck surgery in April 2007. Despite having a progressive discipline policy, Indian Rivers terminated Franks on her first day back at work from leave.
Franks filed for unemployment. In that state administrative action, the employer contended that Franks was not entitled to unemployment because Indian Rivers terminated her for misconduct and failure to complete her job duties sufficiently. The claims examiner denied Franks’ unemployment claim. Franks appealed but, having found a new job three weeks before her appeal hearing date, did not attend the appeal. In Franks’ absence, the hearing officer upheld the examiner’s decision.
Some time after that, Franks decided to sue Indian Rivers for FMLA discrimination, retaliation, and interference. The center argued that the law blocked Franks from pursuing her FMLA retaliation case. The legal principle of issue preclusion says that you cannot re-litigate an issue that you presented previously and on which you received an outcome on the merits from another judicial entity. According to the center, the Alabama unemployment administrative process had adjudicated the issue and determined that the center terminated Franks for misconduct. If issue preclusion applied, that meant that Franks was no longer free to argue that she was actually fired, not for dishonesty, but in retaliation for her taking FMLA leave.
The federal district court agreed with the employer and threw out Franks’ retaliation claim. Franks died while the case was ongoing, but her estate appealed. The estate argued that the legal process that took place in the unemployment proceeding was not sufficient to amount to an adjudication on the merits regarding whether Franks had, or had not, committed misconduct that caused her termination.
The 11th Circuit agreed with that argument. In order to trigger the rule of issue preclusion, you must show several things. Two of these are that the issue in question was actually litigated and decided, and the findings on the issue were essential to the decision. These two criteria were lacking in Franks’ unemployment case. It was never actually litigated, and it was basically decided on procedural grounds. When she didn’t show up to the appeal, the hearing officer essentially granted the center a default victory. The documentation in the unemployment case offered no “competent evidence,” since the file contained only unsworn statements submitted by the employer. Based upon this lack of evidence, the 11th Circuit concluded that the unemployment proceeding did not actually litigate the issue of Franks’ misconduct and did not make necessary findings regarding whether or not Franks committed dishonesty that caused the center to terminate her.
This meant that the rule of issue preclusion did not apply and that the employee was not prohibited from pursuing her retaliation claim. Had the employer submitted competent evidence that was accepted as part of the unemployment case file, and the hearing officer relied upon that to find that Franks had committed misconduct, the outcome in the FMLA case might have been very different.
If you are an employee pursuing an FMLA case, clearly you want to be sure that your case includes all of the potential claims you have against your employer. As an employer, you want to be sure that you’re only defending against claims that the law allows the employee to litigate. Whether you’re an employer or an employee, the hardworking Georgia FMLA attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert can help. Our attorneys have many years of experience helping clients as they pursue or defend against claims relating to FMLA interference and retaliation.
To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.
More blog posts:
Eleventh Circuit Rules that Engineer Can’t Use Minimum Wage Law to Attack Employer’s Withholding of Final Pay, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, July 13, 2016
Dual Theories of Employee’s Misconduct Doesn’t Prove Employer Discriminated, 11th Circuit Rules, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 6, 2016